Wild, Scenic & Trashed

Wild, Scenic & Trashed

  • By: Ted Williams
  • Photography by: Greg Iffrig
  • and Mark Morgan
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National parks are for everyone,” AS THOSE WHO seek to commercialize them constantly and correctly remind the rest of us. But national parks are not for everyone all at once, a fact that seems lost on the folks who manage the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, in southeast Missouri.

This park is supposed to protect 134 miles of two giant spring creeks—the Current River and its major tributary, the Jacks Fork—along with 80,000 watershed acres. Created by an act of Congress in 1964, Riverways was America’s first designation of scenic rivers, and it became the inspiration and model for our 1968 National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

The park’s enabling legislation—largely a reaction to a planned hydroelectric dam that would have converted rivers and the basin to a stagnant deadwater—mandates that the purpose of the Riverways shall be “conserving and interpreting unique scenic and other natural values and objects of historic interest, including preservation of parts of the Current River and the Jacks Fork River in Missouri as free-flowing streams, preservation of springs and caves, management of wildlife, and provisions for use and enjoyment of the outdoor recreation resources thereof by the people of the United States.” Recreation is in there; but note the other stuff.

Even for a Congress lavishly funding river destruction via Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation boondoggles, saving the Current and Jacks Fork was hardly surprising considering the treasures they hold for the nation and the world. There’s an enormous array of plant and wildlife species, many endangered in fact if not by official decree. One hundred and ninety-eight avian species have been recorded in this, the biggest Important Bird Area in Missouri. There are historic structures from 12,000 years of human habitation, 338 caves, and 350 major springs (including the world’s largest issuing from a single source—Big Spring, near Van Buren). The aptly named Big Spring daily enriches the Current River with 278 million gallons of water and 175 tons of calcium carbonate from the limestone bedrock.

The first 20 miles of the Current offer some of the best trout fishing in the Midwest. A few of the rainbows are wild, but most rainbows and browns inside and outside the national park are stocked by the state. Often you’d never know that, because in the limestone-buffered water they grow fast and hatchery scarring quickly heals.

Hatches come off during every month because the water, issuing from karst-formation springs deep in the earth, remains at a fairly constant temperature throughout the year. Most prolific are pale morning duns, Tricos and blue-wing olives. You’ll encounter the latter in winter. There are Hexes and drakes on summer evenings. And terrestrials and hoppers work well in summer and long into autumn.

In the national park the first eight miles of the Current are designated a “Blue Ribbon Trout Area,” with no bait permitted and a daily limit of one brown or rainbow 18 inches or over. There’s superb trouting downstream for another 10 miles or so, but eventually the trout start giving way to the native gamefish—smallmouth bass. On the rest of the river and on the Jacks Fork smallmouth fishing is about as good as it gets anywhere. The fish increase in size as the river widens, deepens and warms. Largemouths patrol the slower, warmer sections of both rivers.

Angler and fisheries-conservation activist Gavin Poppen, of St. Louis, fishes the Current hard and often. His best trout is a 26-inch brown, and he’s had mornings where he’s caught four trout over 18 inches. To avoid the crowds he does most of his fishing in winter and early spring. After April, when the trout section gets busy, he targets smallmouths. On summer weekends he describes the river below the Blue Ribbon Trout Area as a “wall-to-wall people.” He estimates the canoe rentals at 1,500 per day.

Last May the Ozark National Scenic Riverways received further national recognition when the Washington D.C.-based river advocacy group American Rivers named it as one of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers. America’s Most Endangered Rivers program is sponsored by The Orvis Company, which donates five percent of its pre-tax profits to protect fish and wildlife habitat.

“The Riverways are now in danger of being loved to death,” warned American Rivers. “If the National Park Service doesn’t do a better job of protecting these rivers, everything that makes them special—their clean water and value to paddlers and anglers—will be lost . . . . Today, there are more than 130 vehicular-river-access areas, and mazes of unmanaged dirt roads that bleed sediment into the river, harming water quality. Only four horse trails are designated by the park, but more than 250 miles of horse trails are unofficially tolerated—including 80 places where horses cross the rivers and harm water quality with erosion and fecal coliform pollution. American Rivers is calling on the Park Service to hold the Ozarks Riverways to the same standards of protection and enforcement as in other parks.”

I’VE SERVED ON THE BOARD OF American Rivers, and don’t know a more effective or more credible environmental outfit. Still, I sought backup for its disturbing accusations. First I logged onto the Web site of Cross Country Trail Ride, a 3,007-stall horse operation just below the town of Eminence, on the Jacks Fork. The Trail Ride’s “photo gallery” includes 13 shots of people on horseback. In seven of those shots horses are in the river, and in an eighth a horse is a hoof-width away from a fragile, eroding bank. I grew up with horses that my mother kept beside a lake, and our beach was the only spot on that lake where the State of New Hampshire found a water-quality issue. I can attest that when horses enter water they instinctively and almost invariably do three things, in this order: 1. drink; 2. urinate; 3. defecate.

The state DNR classifies the Current and Jacks Fork at the top of its water-quality list—“outstanding national-state resource waters.” But the Jacks Fork suffers serious fecal coliform contamination caused at least in part by horses. In 2003 the National Park Service went so far as to post a notice warning swimmers and waders to stay out of the section below Eminence. It hasn’t seen fit to do so since, despite the fact that the contamination has been sharply and steadily increasing. This, along with disturbance by horses, boat traffic and off-road vehicles (ORVs), appears to be pushing the gravely imperiled Ozark hellbender (a giant aquatic salamander) closer to extinction.

The park’s biggest stakeholder is the LAD Foundation, named for the initials of the Missouri timber magnate, conservationist and philanthropist Leo A. Drey, who incorporated it in 1962. The foundation owns about 140,000 acres that adjoin the park, much of it river frontage and under conservation easement with the Park Service. Foundation spokesman Greg Iffrig makes this complaint: “The number of horses and riders is not under any type of control. The Park Service does have ways of managing motors on boats and canoes and rafts, but strangely not horses. River crossings are being degraded, banks cut.”

Another major stakeholder is Friends of Ozark Riverways—a coalition representing 21 Missouri conservation, fishing and outdoor organizations. Speaking for the coalition is Kally Higgins, an avid smallmouth angler: “I’ve been in my kayak paddling down a chute and a group of horses start to cross the river, and their riders never look upriver. I have to backpaddle to keep from getting run over. We’ve been down where the trail rides start, and it’s just a lot of horses. It’s stinky and loud. They have music and party till the wee hours.”

Finally, this from Kathleen Smith, director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment: “There are too many trails and too many horses spending too much time in the water. Just like you can’t have an outdoor rock festival with one Porta-Potty, you can’t have 3,000 horses crossing the river in the same place in one weekend.”

Then there are the “wild horses,” which in reality are recently lost and discarded livestock and their issue. In 1971 an ecologically illiterate Congress, pushed by ecologically illiterate constituents, passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, giving the Bureau of Land Management the task of managing both these alien species so as “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance.” That task is, of course, impossible. No alien species can thrive or even exist in “natural ecological balance.” So American taxpayers annually spend $75 million keeping feral horses and burros on perpetual welfare.

But the National Park Service is under no such constraint. Its mission is to, within reason, “allow natural processes to proceed unimpeded.” So when feral horses or burros show up and start degrading fish and wildlife habitat it removes them. On the Riverways it can’t, however, because ecological illiterates have intervened there as well.

The watershed’s feral-horse population started when a stallion and mare were dumped in 1950. Gradually the infestation grew, and with it upland and riparian damage. But in 1991—when the Park Service decided to remove the aliens, thereby honoring the mission the public had given it—the public rebelled. Feral-horse fanciers, organized as “the Missouri Wild Horse League,” obtained a permanent injunction against feral-horse removal.

The Park Service appealed, and the district court vacated the injunction, finding that feral horses “are considered to be exotic species, and their continued presence in the park is in conflict with the purpose of the park which is to maintain, rehabilitate, and perpetuate the park’s natural resources inherent integrity.” After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision the league sent (at least according to its attorney) 3,500 human demonstrators and 500 domestic horses to protest outside Riverways headquarters in Van Buren. League president Allen Akers, who remains in office, proclaimed that feral horses are “a symbol of that for which we were fighting in Viet Nam—freedom.”

In 1995 Republican Congressman Bill Emerson introduced the Wild Horses Act, a measure to make feral horses a permanent part of the Riverways; and a year later President Clinton signed it into law. The league is supposed to monitor and manage the herd, keeping the population at or below 50, but it’s not clear that this is happening. The law sets a national precedent for park-by-park exceptions to long-established federal policy, and signals that natural regulation is important only where expedient and popular.

Motor-vehicle traffic, including 4x4s, ORVs and jet boats, is no less disruptive and damaging than domestic and feral-horse traffic. In 1964, when the park was established, there were few access roads and few motor vehicles, and boat traffic consisted mostly of canoes and low-horsepower fishing boats.

“The proliferation of illegal roads and trails to the river has not only caused severe erosion issues but makes an enjoyable experience for many wanting to camp, fish, swim in a natural environment virtually impossible,” submits Wallis Warren, conservation director of the Ozark Fly Fishers. “Access points are found virtually every mile (an estimated 136) along the 134 miles of river, which is in contrast with the original plan of one access every 15 to 20 miles.”

And an official statement from Friends of the Ozark Riverways reads as follows: “Not only are there too many [jet boats], but the manner in which most jet boats are operated make it dangerous for canoers, kayakers, swimmers and anglers . . . . There is almost nowhere that a floater can land on a gravel bar and walk into the woods without being assaulted by a maze of rutted, heavily eroded roads, scarred or dead trees, and degraded habitat, not to mention the frequent sights from the river of vehicles and their tire tracks on gravel bars and river banks. Moreover, many of the gravel bars originally intended by Congress and early park planners for swimming, fishing, picnics, or overnight camping by floaters are appropriated by motor vehicles for weeks on end.”

In her pursuit of smallmouths Kally Higgins used to enjoy floating the river by canoe and camping on the gravel bars. Now she’s hesitant. “People drive in in the middle of the night,” she told me. “It’s scary.”

“A road goes in and nothing happens,” says the LAD Foundation’s Iffrig. “And then another goes in, and nobody says anything. When people were talking about saving the rivers they had a different idea in mind.”

I asked Iffrig if the foundation gets any satisfaction when it complains to the Park Service. As an example he related management’s reaction to grotesque motor-vehicle damage—deep rutting along the river that, by any standard, amounted to resource “impairment,” requiring aggressive and immediate federal remediation. The foundation asked Riverways superintendent Reed Detring and his deputy to inspect the damage. “The normal Park Service reaction would have been, ‘What can we do to restore this?’” said Iffrig. “But they would not recognize impairment. Instead they suggested bulldozing and graveling to make a parking area and then establishing some camping sites with grills and picnic tables. We don’t need more of these things. We already have too many. They wanted to ignore the problem once again. Not fix it, just cover it over.”

According to Rindy O’Brien, coordinator for Friends of Ozark Riverways, Superintendent Detring seems reluctant to meet with the coalition when it complains about conservation easement violations. “There are numerous examples all down the scenic corridor where people build double and triple the permitted footprint and put in new facilities,” she told me. “They do it with a wink and a nod from the Park Service. The Coalition for the Environment took the Park Service to court on this issue and got a settlement in favor of the conservation community. The park is supposed to take certain steps. Not many of those have happened.”

I can’t report Detring’s side of the story because he didn’t return my phone calls.

Park staff appears singularly unconcerned about all the illegal roads and horse and motor-vehicle violations. Their excuse is that they lack enforcement capability. Yet the park employs 18 law-enforcement agents, all of whom seem to be AWOL.

Occasionally, however, management does something right. On July 5, 2011 it placed boulders on an illegal river-access road at its Sinking Creek Area and informed visitors that, while they were still free to camp there, they’d have to use designated campsites and designated parking areas. The local paper, The Salem News, offered no comments from advocates of scenic wildness. Instead it collected and published harangues from locals who claimed to be victimized by thuggish feds. “The boulders prevent the handicapped and elderly from having easy access to the river,” proclaimed Shannon County Commissioner Dale Counts.

And Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO), widow of feral-horse-infestation preserver Rep. Bill Emerson (R-MO), accused the Park Service of “limiting recreational activities,” being “out of touch” and placing the illegal access road “off-limits at great inconvenience to many of the visitors who know it best and who most appreciate the opportunity to spend time there.” Immediately the Park Service scheduled a float trip for her. When I asked the park’s information officer, Faye Walmsley, if the boulders would stay in place she responded that there was “no plan” to remove them.

The official management plan of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, in place since 1984, mandates, among other things, that:

  1. “The perpetuation of the [aquatic] system, including its physical scene and recreational value, is of the utmost importance in the overall management of the riverways.”
  2. “It is the objective of the National Park Service to maintain the natural abundance, behavior, diversity, and ecological integrity of native animals in natural portions of the riverways and to rely on natural processes to regulate populations of these species.”
  3. “The major role of the National Park Service is to determine the level of recreational use an area may experience without degradation of its resources and/or the quality of the visitor experience and to develop and implement a management program to maintain public use below that level.”

In response to American Rivers’ naming the Current and Jacks Fork to its most endangered list the park allowed that it “recognized” the group’s concerns but not to worry because everything would be addressed in its new management plan that it decided to develop nine years ago and that might be out in 2012. “Until the new General Management Plan is approved,” it continued, “the park has made an effort to limit major decisions effecting [sic] management of activities or development that could contradict with the new plan.” Limiting major decisions affecting management is one thing the park excels at.

The fact that the park has spent 27 years ignoring provisions of its existing management plan may explain why none of the advocates of fish, wildlife and scenic rivers I contacted seemed reassured by the promise of a new one.

Ted Williams has written about conservation issues for this magazine for almost three decades.